Buried beneath fictional unsettling sounds, survivalist struggles and the absence of light is the real-life, interpersonal tragic event that moved writer-director Trey Edward Shults to write his sophomore feature, It Comes at Night.
At face value, the film can be interpreted as a genre piece that thrives simply on jump scares, mysterious events and (maybe) revelatory plot twists, yet on close inspection these conventions reveal themselves as a vehicle to address much more humanistic concerns. Fear is a virus with no prescribed cure and, as we learn in Shults’ new compelling family drama, is heightened by isolation. Straight man Paul (Joel Edgerton), his brave wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live alone in the woods in what seems to be the aftermath of an event that changed the course of life on earth. Their strict security protocol and food collection methods have allowed them to create a system that has more or less functioned so far, but when another family enters their private ecosystem the rules inevitably change. Trust comes at a high price, and the weight of morality, even in dire circumstances, is heavier than the possibility of death. Like in his astounding Krisha, John Waters’ favorite film of 2016, the promising Malick disciple works within a single space and builds dramatic intensity from unassuming situations. In both films, Shults channels difficult passages in his own life and works through them not literally but cinematically.
Shults shared with MovieMaker the specifics of making a larger feature that was originally designed with much smaller expectations.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When you set out to write this film, did you want to subvert genre tropes in some way?
Trey Edward Shults (TES): No, it just kind of came out. It started with a personal place, and I just wrote through there, and that kind of guided me. That being said, I had time with it after I initially wrote it, and as it got made, I was conscious of that stuff, but I really wanted to keep intact what it was that came out of me in the initial three days that I wrote it.
MM: What was that initial thought?
TES: I lost my dad to cancer. I had a rough relationship with him, and we hadn’t seen each other in over 10 years, and he got pancreatic cancer. I went to him on his deathbed, and he was so full of regret he didn’t want to let go. I was just trying to help him find some peace. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. A few months after that, I started writing, and I’m a movie guy, and this became my way of processing grief. It’s weird to watch now. The opening scene is what let it off, with Sarah saying goodbye to her dad—that’s what I was saying to mine, and that fictional narrative after that just bursts forth. I don’t know what people take from it. All I know is that it brings me back to my headspace that I was in, and the things that were on my mind. What the movie’s about, whether emotionally or thematically, is what I was grappling with at the time when I wrote it.
MM: In that sense, even though this is a genre film, would you say it falls along the same lines as Krisha, a very personal family-driven drama?
TES: Totally. I really didn’t consciously approach them in that different of a way. I was conscious that I didn’t want to make a miserable movie with someone passing from cancer. I wanted to put the very heavy subject matter and emotion into something that hopefully is more digestible, that you can access better. A lot of people aren’t going to get how personal this is, and that’s fine, and I hope they can find something they like in it.
MM: You also worked with the same cinematographer, Drew Daniels, for this project. Would you say that there are visual parallels between It Comes at Night and your previous film?
TES: There certainly are instances of it. In general, with this film, we wanted a subtler, maybe even a more patient approach, where you’re kind of just enveloped in the story. When I wrote it, I wrote everything in the script, from when it had to be a long take, to when we changed aspect ratios, to when it’s a long take with a Steadicam or zoom. The screenplay was very visually heavy, and I consciously tried to challenge myself with this, to just write it as the story, and hopefully it reads well as a script. I think that’s how we made it too, to just envelop you, and never do things to call attention to itself, and to get that balance right.
MM: Something that’s noticeable is that both of your films take place mostly inside a house. Does that bring certain challenges visually and in the construction of the narrative?
TES: I would say that, in particular with this movie, doing it again in a single location, it just wore on me a bit to where by the end of it, right now, the last thing I want to do is another single location movie, but we really enjoyed it. Obviously what’s huge is the house. If it’s one location, the location is everything. In Krisha, it was my mom’s house, and I lived there, and I knew every nook and cranny, and every day as I wrote, I would plan the camera moves, and how to shoot it. With this, I didn’t have a set house, but I was drawing on my grandparents’ house that I grew up in as a kid, this country house in Texas. I wrote the script based on the layout of that house, but I knew we couldn’t shoot there, so we had to find a house that could have all of that, but I could be open and flexible and be able to change things. It was a good challenge, and luckily, the house that we found was so old, and had so much history. It was huge and beautiful, and I explored every nook and cranny, just like with Krisha, to think of what we could do. But I’m not doing another single location movie. I’ve got to get out.
MM: How long was the shoot in comparison to your previous film? Is it safe to assume this time around it was much more extensive?
TES: Totally. Krisha was nine days and this was 26. We had a bigger crew, we had stunts, we had set pieces, and whole new challenges with lighting. It seems like way more time, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt longer than Krisha, no doubt, but it felt like we had just enough time to get what we needed. It was interesting.
MM: Do you feel like it’s a departure for you as a filmmaker, because of the larger stakes?
TES: No, it’s bigger, but it still wasn’t a union shoot, so it was pretty loose. I was really conscious that I wanted to build a creative family, even though we weren’t family and friends starting out, even though I brought as many people from Krisha as I could. I think by the end of the first week of shooting, we had already achieved that. I just wanted everybody to be excited about what they were doing and have fun doing it, especially because these movies are dark and the material is draining, but when we’re making them, we’re having a lot of fun doing it, when it’s not stressful and challenging—although of course those days come as well.
MM: The film doesn’t give exact answers. We don’t have a revelatory plot twist at the end, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation. How do you think audiences will take that? We’ve been trained to expect perfect resolution.
TES: That’s a great question. The movie was certainly not designed for a wide release or a mainstream audience, so it’s interesting. I think I leave things unanswered because that’s what this story is, and that’s what the core of the movie is about. I’m sure a lot of people are going to be frustrated by it, but what I tell people when I talk about the movie is, just come at it with an open mind. It’s not a conventional horror film, but there’s a lot of thought and care put into this, and if something’s not what you expect, it’s not because we’re being lazy. There’s a reason we’re doing that. The film was designed with an openness, so that if you like or you don’t like, if you see it again or just think about it, it doesn’t give you all the answers and I hope it sticks with you. I hope it means different things to different people. My favorite idea is that it just seeps into you, and you have to think about it for a while, and either have a conversation with it, or it just sticks on your mind. That would be amazing.
MM: What were some of the references that came to mind in terms of genre films when making It Comes at Night? There’s a little bit of a post-apocalyptic tale, zombies and even supernatural elements.
TES: I think most of the post-apocalyptic side of things was that I had a family member that was a “prepper,” who started thinking about stuff like that, like getting guns, and storing food, and family and trust and all of that. So that was less inspired by film. The conscious horror influences are especially Night of the Living Dead and The Shining and The Thing, and how those movies, to me, are really about the dynamics of the people. What this monster does to these people, or what these ghosts do to this family, or what these zombies do to these people inside this house. It’s about what these forces inflict upon the power dynamics and the fear and the paranoia, and that was interesting to me. I was fascinated by these two families, these two tribes, being in the same house in the middle of nowhere, and seeing if they could coexist, or how one small thing could creep in and ruin that dynamic.
MM: What I got from the film is that fear and mistrust spread like a virus. How does that idea draw on today’s world?
TES: Definitely, and I love that you took that from the movie, because that’s definitely on the movie’s mind. It’s certainly something I think about, and think about more and more. When I initially wrote this, it was in 2014, and it’s not what our world is today. It wasn’t perfect, but I think things have gotten worse since then. What I was drawing on at the time was more history-related things. I was reading books about genocide, and how people can commit horrible things, thinking about how we can do that time and time again, these cycles of violence, and how our society is built on this violence, and how I think a lot of that just stems from fear. I hope that comes across in the movie.
MM: At the same time, you have a coming-of-age story of a young boy growing up in the middle of this madness. I understand that this was written before, but it definitely feels very relevant today.
TES: I think I just got drawn to and was fascinated by this kid who was in a situation he should not be in. It kind of broke my heart a bit. The idea of having a 17-year-old having to go through what Travis goes through in this movie. I think it’s the heart of the movie, and I think I put a lot of myself into the character Travis. The way he sees the world, and the dynamics with this father, is a lot like the stuff I have with my step-dad, and what I had with my [biological] dad. I just thought it was a more interesting way to go through this world, and see it through Travis’ eyes.
MM: He seems to be the most pure and innocent character in a world that’s plagued with suspicion.
TES: Certainly. He’s a good person, and he believes in people. I think I just got fascinated with that dynamic, how he sees the world and how his mom and dad see the world, and the situation they’re in, it’s getting to the core of what this movie’s about. How far is too far? Sometimes there are worst things than death. That’s all part of Travis’ journey, basically.
MM: It Comes at Night clearly has a much more famous cast than your previous film. Tell me about the process of working with name actors this time around.
TES: It was great. It was a conscious choice to challenge myself, and not work with family and friends only, even though I brought as many people from Krisha as I could. My thing was, I just wanted to work with, first off, crazy talented people, but also good people, and sit down with them, and feel their energy, and that they’re passionate and excited. That’s what we did. I wanted to create a little creative family, and collaborate, and we all went about it that way.
MM: Is rehearsal part of your process with actors?
TES: We did not rehearse very much; I just had a lot of conversations with each person about their character. Because of where the movie comes from, for me, the movie is really about how the characters are interlinked, but a lot of it is what each person does for Travis and how he sees them. There was a lot of that. If we had a big day or a big scene coming up actors would rehearse on their own, but what I wanted time for was for bonding. I had Riley and Griffin, who is the child in the film, hang out a lot. I had Chris and Riley hang out so they had chemistry. I tried to get family time going between Carmen, Joel and Kelvin. Sometimes Joel would chop wood with Kelvin and show him how to make a fire, cook food on the fire, shoot BB guns, then they would eat the dinner they made in the house with all the lights off only using candle light or lanterns. It was about having that separate bonding time.
MM: I understand that before Krisha became an indie hit, you had already written It Comes at Night. By the time A24 was interested you already had a follow-up project ready to go. How important was it to capitalize on that interest by being prepared?
TES: It was very important. Regardless of how anything goes, you just have to be ready because people can move on from you real quick. With Krisha it was just beautiful timing because I already had this other script ready. When A24 reached out, they didn’t even know if they were going to release Krisha, buy it or if it was smart to do it. But they were like, “What do you want to do next?” and I said, “I’m going to make this personal movie and I already have it written.” I showed it to them and they said, “Great, we want to make it.” They got Krisha, and they became like a two-thing deal. It’s smart to stay creative, stay hungry, keep that stuff growing so that if you get your chance or you get an opportunity you can run with it as much as you can. MM
It Comes at Night opened in theaters June 9, 2017, courtesy of A24.